Saturday, June 28, 2008


We turn our backs on the rags and rubble of Mumbai, heading across the estuary, in search of some green and pleasant land. Monu suggests Matheran, a hill-station about sixty miles east. We’ve never heard of it, but we give it a go. It turns out, when we get there, that he’s never been, either, so it’s a bit of a pig in a poke. (Not very pc, I know, given our current co-ordinates, but you think of a veg alternative – ‘an aubergine in a hessian sack’ doesn’t quite do it, does it?) Happily for Lucknow’s favourite son, Matheran exceeds all our green hopes, even the monsoon hides in the wings, until we’re back in the car, on our way home.
As soon as we leave the expressway, nature takes over. Against all expectations, it’s like Scotland, hill after craggy hill, head in the clouds and feet in the mist. We wind the windows down, and the hot air rushes in. So, not quite like Scotland, after all.

We see a washerwoman, by the well, slapping her linen on the rocks, wringing it out, then piling it into her basket to carry home, on her head. I think we should have basket-balancing on the National Curriculum, it does wonders for deportment and posture.
Women bend, ankle-deep in the flooded rice-fields, weeding. Only a quarter of each field is green with new shoots, the remainder to be seeded as the season unfolds. I feel sorry for the bullocks, straining to pull their ploughs through the mud, but Mr Roland, the country-wise, reckons they’re up for it. I don’t recall seeing many bullock-carts in Buckinghamshire, so I’m unsure how he knows, but I suppose he’s right.
The local school’s painted egg-yolk yellow - farm egg, not supermarket egg, obviously, I don’t think they do colour-chart chemical interference, here. The small girls wear navy-blue pinafores over white blouses, with red ribbons in their looped plaits, just to be cute. Their school bags are bigger than they are. Their older sisters wear long white kurtas over navy salwars, with navy dupattas. Simple, but stunning. For the first time, I see that the words “elegant” and “school-uniform” can be in the same sentence, without starting a fight. The boys are in white shirts and beige shorts, or beige longs, depending on the size of boy.
The further up the mountain we go, the more crumbly the road, which makes interesting driving on hairpin bends. Monu’s slightly inclined to survey the scenery, so I offer to drive. He laughs. I don’t doubt him for an instant, which is more than I can say of Mr Roland, swerving up and down the Gorges du Tarn...
Near the top of the hill, we run into a dead-end. Cars aren’t allowed any further, in the interests of pure air and tourism. As soon as we slow down, we’re surrounded, and Monu replaces his chauffeur’s cap with his guide-and-protector hat. If we want to reach Matheran, we have three choices. We can walk, we can take the mini-train, or we can go on horseback. Guess?
We choose c)... I know....
We invite Monu to come with us. “This very long price...” he says, doubtfully reporting negotiations so far, but then he capitulates. “OK, I come.” So the horsemen bring our noble steeds. Monu gets a pony (“Very nice horse, very small, very fast. I like my horse.”) Roland gets Meghraj, King of the Clouds, speckled brown and white. And mine is beautiful, a glossy chestnut called Raja, just a foot taller than everyone else’s. Now is this because a) I look instantly like a competent horsewoman, exuding equestrian savoir-faire; b) Raj has the nicest nature, and I visibly need all the help I can get; or (depressingly) c) I have such an enormous backside, a smaller mount won’t do? Don’t tell me what you think...
Despite having read every word from J Cooper’s pen, I still think horse-riding’s not really a sport. I mean, the horse does all the work, doesn’t it? You just have to sit there, enjoying the view... Head Horseman Krishna accompanies Raja and me (thus supporting possibility b) above – also Raja’s his top horse, so it’s in his interest to hold onto the bridle every inch of the way...). “Straight back, straight back,” he reproves, “no soft back.” I sit up, and immediately forget how to hold the reins. “This brake, this left, this right. This finger, this finger, like this. Hold tight.” My spine sags. If you think it’s easy, go and give yourself a scrub-down with a curry-comb right now. It’s harder than it looks. So this is me, eating humble pony-cubes.
I ask Krishna, if Raja’s a boy or a girl horse, because I’m too busy, getting my handbag trapped on the pommel, as I hurl myself into the saddle from a standing start, to check out Raja’s credentials. I think he says, “she,” so I ask, interestedly, if she’s had a foal...Puzzlement. A baby horse? Blank. A horse baby, then? Light dawns. “This boy horse, all boys,” he says. No baby, then. It seems he didn’t say, “she,” he said, “this sneeze,” when Raja was spluttering. It’s going to be a long trek.
About a million miles up the stony path, we sidle to a halt, and I winch myself off Raja, glad to be on terra firma, even with wobbly legs.
In the rapid exchange Monu has with the drivers, I hear the magic words “restaurant” and “market” – shopping and lunch, what could be nicer? Apparently, though, we’re here for the view. Well, once we scramble down a steep track, through a copse, we are. En route, Monu stops, and points to a craggy mound of red earth. Mr Roland and I crane forward. “This snake house.” We take a step back, to admire it more fully. “He sleeping,” says Monu, confidently. He’s turning into a bit of a Patrol Leader, our Monu. We tiptoe away. No-one likes being woken up from a nice nap, do they?

The thing about getting off the horse, is that you have to get back on again. When you go by plane, it’s not the actual flying that’s dangerous, it’s the takeoff and landing. Same with horses. I can cope with the clip-clop, clip-clop in between, just about. Fortunately, there’s a handy wall, so it’s more of a walk-on, this time.
You like, go fast?” asks Krishna, “you stand, you sit, stand, sit, one-two, one-two.” Before I can answer, he says something in horse, with his tongue and his teeth, and we take off. I think I may be doing sit-stand, instead of stand-sit, because I get a thorough saddle-spanking, and it occurs to me Raja and I aren’t ready for the Way the Farmer Rides, just yet.
The mud’s a darker shade of Heinz Tomato Soup, witness Mr Roland’s fawn trouser-bottoms. I ask if the horses have to be washed every day, like our car, but Krishna says, only once a fortnight, more often’s not good for them. “But every night, massage.” I think he means the horses.
We stop for another view, down another track, but ignore the verdant panorama in favour of a monkey-dog fight. Four snarling dogs, one very persistent monkey. Youths lounging nearby encourage him, in English, for our benefit, shooing away the dogs. “You no hear what I speak?" They punctuate their request with stones. "Go away, no-good bastard dogs!” The dogs yelp
back up the path to the street. After a little while, the monkey follows. He’s clearly not had enough.
There’s another conference about lunch, but it’s destined not to be, so we sling our legs over our horses’ backs, again, for the homeward trek. We meet men, pulling and pushing cartloads of stones and grit, up to the village. “Indian men, very small, very strong,” says Krishna, steering out of their way. We stop, where the railway track crosses the path, waving to the train as it squeaks to a halt. Like the local Mumbai train, this one has doors which are never closed, and the passengers loll out, on all sides.
This horse jump,” Krishna informs me. He clicks twice, and Raja does a spirited wiggle and a kick, at the end of which, I’m lying across his neck, sliding sideways, stirrups flying. Monu, ever supportive, is behind me, laughing. It’s alright for him, on My Little Pony, back there...
We ride to within three feet of the car, which is as well, because I can’t walk, once Raja and I go our separate ways. “You want see this horse jump?” Krishna asks, as we’re leaving. We do. He manoeuvres about a bit, then does a standing leap, Heigh Ho Silver, without banging his nose on Raja’s neck. We clap and wave.
I roll the window up, as we gather a little speed, but the damage is done. Out of conditioner this morning, open-window drive, horseback exposure to elements, natural tendency to madness – factor in the monsoon, and you have a coiffure like a mousy pan-scourer. I will not get a comb through this until next Tuesday.
In the car, I ask Monu why we don’t have lunch, and he says, “No nice. Village women very dirty.” He pulls in, at a road-side stall. We drive home, munching Magic Masala Balaji Wafers, aka crinkle-cut crisps, washed down with mango juice. Or coke, if you’re Monu.
A perfect day.